THE BLOG
05/19/2011 09:27 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2011

The Dog Isn't Hunting

Jacksonville, FL -- For the first time in history, Jacksonville, Florida -- one of the places where minority voter suppression tainted the election of 2000 -- has elected an African-American mayor, Alvin Brown. Brown, who campaigned strongly on jobs, education and downtown revitalization, was endorsed by the Sierra Club against a Tea Party opponent, Republican Mike Hogan. It's ironic that Brown was once an advisor to Vice President Al Gore, whose presidential victory was stolen in Florida -- indeed, in this very city. And Brown's victory on a campaign emphasizing better land use planning came after the state legislature voted to gut the state's previously bipartisan tradition of holding developers accountable.

But Jacksonville is not the only place where voters are demonstrating that recently elected Tea Party ideologues got the wrong message from the 2010 election. There is, of course, next week's nail-biter special election in upstate New York for what ought to be a totally safe Republican seat, but where the proposed dismantling of Medicare in the House Republican budget has created a tie in current polls. Two days ago in New Hampshire, another safe Republican seat -- this one for the State House -- was swept by the Democrats in a protest against the extremist views of the Republican nominee. Earlier, Democrats picked up an Assembly seat in Wisconsin.

In the heartland, back in April, Missouri voters were already overwhelmingly turning back efforts to eliminate special taxes which funded social services and environmental protection. Throughout the last month, the Republican congressional delegation from Missouri have acted as if getting rid of government services was the message they were hearing from their voters. Their learning curve seems a mite slow.

It's one of the bromides of American politics that when a party or movement wins a big victory at the polls, it should try to "cash in" its mandate as quickly as possible, because said mandate will evaporate rather quickly. Instead, I think it's time to consider the idea that these mandates evaporate quickly precisely because the winners try to cash in too rashly, and inevitably overreach. Election winners fail to take the time to understand what the public really intended when they entered the polling place. For instance, whatever drove voters to elect the Gingrich Congress in 1994, it almost certainly wasn't the repeal of basic environmental and food safety standards. Then, when Gingrich went after those programs as part of the fine print in the Contract With America, he lost effective control of the Congress. When Bill Clinton, in his first inaugural address, proclaimed that he heard the message that the American people wanted "a revolution," he wasn't listening terribly well. He got better at it later.

Maybe the next big election winner should try to use their first six months to do things that will make them more popular, not less. I'm afraid it's too late for the Tea Party.